Women’s History Month Feature: How Stand Up Comedy Helped Me Deal With Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome
When I was little, I said that my goal was to -- everyday -- make someone laugh. It could be my mom, a stranger at a grocery store, or on days that I was alone it could be myself as consolation. It was the wish I blew my candles out to.
The first time I did stand up comedy was 2019, my senior year of college, in front of peers, hookups, and my mom and dad. It was an improv show with an audience of 150 people. This is unusual. Most comedians' first times are at an open mic with 12 attendees, in a club that probably smells like faint cigarette smoke and dead dreams.
When I got on stage that night, my belly felt acidic, like it would soon rid me of all the dinner I didn’t even touch. Were it not for the shaky video my sister took, I wouldn’t have remembered a thing about my performance. This is common: each time after I perform, I block out everything I have just done. It’s a huge mistake to commit when trying to hone the craft. If writing is rewriting as Hemingway says, then making jokes is remaking jokes.
That makeshift performance, albeit successful, was just a start. I wanted that feeling that stand up initially gave me -- a sense of completeness, accomplishment. It’s the sweetest kind of release.
Towards Los Angeles
My next step was to try out my material in Los Angeles. Of course, first, I had to graduate, and make decisions about the rest of my professional life.
But the summer after college graduation, and after a lifetime of random illnesses and pain, I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. EDS is a group of connective tissue disorders that weaken the foundation in the body. It’s a rare, chronic disease that had been misdiagnosed my whole life. It was also a natural segue to a career in comedy, which isn’t that physically demanding.
Initially, I wasn’t supposed to do any comedy beyond silly tweets after a day of real work. I was supposed to go to grad school and have a six figure salary in less than five years. I would slut myself out to corporate interests and have adorable one thousand dollar shoes that no one paid attention to. Maybe even a cocaine addiction. I got into some reputable schools to achieve this masochistic, capitalistic dream, but when my days started to become more idle and painful, I let it go.
In a way, I was temporarily relieved. I always had a knack for comedy, and would now have the opportunity to truly pursue it.
Stand Up Comedy 101
Luckily, I already had my first audition scheduled -- even if it terrified me. I went to a reputable comedy club -- The Ice House in Pasadena -- and greeted a large older man outside. Some people look like they’ll be funny -- he did, and later was not. I told him this was my first time doing stand up in a real way. He scoffed.
“This isn’t the right place to do it. This is sort of a big deal. I drove two hours to get here.”
I panicked amidst my smiley reply and expected him to be hot stuff. He made one good joke, but had a room of deadpanning Aubrey Plazas afterward.
Meanwhile my whole set floated verbatim in my head, rudely interrupting every comic who took the stage that September evening. Then it was my time to take the stage, a real stage, a stage that had comedic legends frequently grace it.
I somewhat envy those who have never stood up there. They don’t fully understand how blinding the lights are, how sweaty 96 pairs of eyes can make one feel, or how truly uncomfortable it is. They maintain the mystique of a performer's light grace, and think the performer is looking at only them. Impossible.
Finally, I had my first ‘gig’ at a club in Los Angeles. Gig is in air quotes because a first timers’ ‘gig’ is a bringer show. This means a newcomer excitedly invites everyone they know to their very first show. Friends and family oblige in the novelty and excitability of it all. They pay ten dollars for parking, ten dollars to get in, and are liable to a “two item minimum.” The whole night costs them $45 each, and they only get to see their shining star for five minutes. I knew the scam of it all. Still, I was excited.
Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, On Stage
The day of my first show had come. Before it, I was told a stand up comedy rule of thumb: never perform something you wrote the day of a show. I was diagnosed with EDS the Wednesday before my Friday show. I lightly processed the disorder diagnosis on Thursday, and performed a set I wrote on Friday.
“15 years of misdiagnosis. 15 years of not feeling listened to or understood.
I feel like I’ve already experienced marriage.”
I went on to tell the audience what EDS even was, and said the joint hypermobility associated with my condition actually made me super flexible and sexy.
I felt the release that I had previously yearned for. Fellow performers that night applauded my set. My mom laughed the loudest. She sits front row at every one of my shows, even if she knows the joke by heart, and even if I am talking about men I’ve slept with. Later, when we got home, she looked at me with melancholy.
“I’m not ready to laugh about it,” she said.
No one is in comedy. But that's what comedians are. Welders. They transform anything grotesque into something lighter, without adhering to time. To me, its magic. It is precisely this transformation that has helped me cope with a chronic pain diagnosis, along with all the other obstacles in my life.
Ehlers-Danlos has taken some things away from me, but it has also given me the greater ability to make someone laugh everyday, and for that I am grateful.
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